How Spaced Repetition Can Make Exam Time a Breeze

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You're back in the groove of your back-to-school routine – and if you're sticking with your smart study habits, then you're on track for major success this year.

If, on the other hand, you've been slacking a little on your multi-pronged study plan (no judgement! It happens to the best of us), reworking your goals now can still set you up to ace your midterms and final exams in the weeks and coming months.

Priority one? Incorporating spaced repetition in your study plan. Spaced repetition is based on the theory that if you repeat something at increasingly long intervals, you'll start retaining information more easily than simply repeating the same thing over and over again with no breaks in between.

Do it right, and you'll just need a quick glance over your notes before exams and the info will all come flooding back – no brain-draining all-nighters required.

How Learning and Memory Works

To understand spaced repetition, you first need to know a bit about how your brain stores info in the first place. Instead of storing a memory like a computer would store a file on a computer – where you could pull up a "file" from a certain place in your brain at a certain time – memories are really just networks of connected brain cells firing in a certain way. Creating a new memory requires your brain cells create new connections. And, more importantly, nurture those connections over time so you don't forget that info you just learned.

That process takes some time. And because your brain can only learn a few pieces of new info at a time, it has to prioritize information – and only stores the info it thinks is most important.

So How Does Spaced Repetition Hack Your Brain?

Spaced repetition works by training your brain to see your study materials as important. Reviewing the study material repeatedly, with increasingly long breaks in between, teaches your brain that you'll need that information over and over again over longer time periods. So you start strengthening those nerve connections in your brain and storing it in your longer-term memory.

In the short term, that means starting spaced repetition now means you'll already have most of your class materials stored in longer-term memory, so you won't have to cram for your exams. Even more importantly, spaced repetition will help that info stay with you after your exam – so you'll still remember it when you move on to more advanced courses.

How to Practice Spaced Repetition

One simple way to practice spaced repetition is to review your notes nightly (or the next day, if you're in a nighttime class), as well as weekly. Reviewing your notes takes just a few minutes a day, but means you'll already have reviewed the material three times within a week (once in class, once in your daily review, and once in your weekly one). That should allow you to absorb the most important concepts from that week so you can remember them come exam time.

Use flashcards for class material that involves rote memorization – like learning the parts of the cell, orbital shapes or physics equations. Once you've made your stack of flashcards and studied them a few times, you can start to edit your deck: Drop cards you always get right to review every few weeks, and prioritize ones you get wrong to review every day. Once you know all the material, you may only need to review them once a month to stay fresh.

When it comes close to exam time, pull your notes the flashcards out for one last quick review: you should still have most of the material in your memory. You'll also quickly ID any material you need to review, so you can spend a few hours studying – then get a good night's sleep before your exam.


About the Author

Sylvie Tremblay holds a Master of Science in molecular and cellular biology and has years of experience as a cancer researcher and neuroscientist. Before launching her writing business, she worked as a TA and tutored students in biology, chemistry, math and physics.

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